A Maternal Tribute

I just recently returned from burying my mother. Oh, yes, she’s dead. She passed on September 10, 2015, five days after my birthday, at the age of 90 years and 9 months. Due to her age and physical condition, her death was not unexpected. For some time now, Mother had been suffering from various ailments–diabetes, kidney trouble and anemia, among them, but she always remained in good spirits. I don’t feel at all sad, because my mom was ready to go. She didn’t have anything to live for anymore. For the last few years she was confined to a hospital/hospice/nursing home facility, where she received around-the-clock care. She could no longer walk or go anywhere on her own or do anything. She was basically only existing.

That last year Ma succumbed to dementia, and had become increasingly disoriented and confused. She still knew me and my siblings and her grandchildren, but her memory was short-term at best. She would repeat herself often, not realizing that she just told me that a moment ago. So since she had already resigned herself to her passing, we all accepted it as well. She led a good, long life, and I have no regrets or unfinished business with her. The last time we spoke on the phone, only a few days before she died, and every other time that we spoke, we both said “I love you” to each other.

My mother, Jeannette Agnes Wilson-Poston Amos Townsend McNeill, lived in South Bend, Indiana her entire life and even lived in the same house for 80 of those years. Mother grew up as an only child, but a while long ago discovered that she had a half-sister living right in town with her, my Aunt Betty, and a half-brother, whom neither of us ever met, from their common father, Willard Wilson. She and Betty even used to play together as children, not knowing, at the time, that they were sisters!

For some time Mother had known that she was adopted but had not been told the specific circumstances, until a niece of her birth mother contacted her some years ago and filled in most of the details. It turns out that my real grandmother, Muriel Piatt Poston Williams Crew, was only 15-years-old when she gave birth to my mother in 1924, and against her own wishes, her parents would not let her keep her baby.

How is this for hypocrisy? Muriel’s grandmother was a German white woman who apparently had mated with a black man, and being the times and all (the 1860s), even though it was the North, they never married, but the mother got to keep her child anyway. So along comes my mother also born out of wedlock, and Granny insisted that the baby be put up for adoption, to avoid another scandal in the family, I suppose. She even sent the pregnant Muriel from her home in Ohio to stay with Muriel’s older sister in Niles, Michigan until she had her baby. Then the family arranged a direct adoption with the Amoses, and for years nobody, especially my mother, was the wiser.

She once suspected that she was at least Mark Amos’ real daughter by another woman other than his wife, but she couldn’t verify it. When she did confront him once years ago with her adoption suspicions, he flatly denied it. So she just let it go and didn’t pursue it. Up until the day he died, “Papa” never confessed to my mother the real truth of her origin.

Muriel herself, after she got grown and was living in South Bend, did not ever try to contact my mother, even though she knew who she was and where she lived. We learned later that Granny would sometimes observe Mother from a distance when she was at church or on the street somewhere, but she never revealed herself to her. Grandmother Muriel was married twice (her first husband was the father of a friend and colleague of mine!), and we learned that she had another child while still a teenager, but it didn’t live long.

It was originally reported that Muriel died in 1964 of untreated diabetes at the ripe, young age of 54. I have since learned, however, that Granny fell in her kitchen one day and banged her head on a counter as she went down. So it was probably the resulting concussion she received that killed her. She did have brothers and sisters however, so now I have a whole slew of resultant aunts, uncles and cousins whom neither my mother nor any of us knew anything about, living in South Bend, Niles and the Cleveland area. Mother eventually found out that some people in town whom she had known all her life turned out to be our cousins! She really regretted not knowing her mother while she was alive. At this time we know nothing about the family of my mother’s birth father.

My mother first met my father, Earl Maize Townsend, in 1945 at the Chez Paree, a popular, local nightspot in South Bend, where their friends used to hang out on a regular basis. The place served liquor, had a jukebox and allowed dancing. Think of it as sort of a precursor discotheque. Mom was 20 and Dad was 24. He liked them younger. Against everybody’s wishes (everyone thought that my mother was too good for my dad), they started dating and before too long, Mother was pregnant with Earl Jr. (Like mother, like daughter, huh?) Then they were pressured by her parents to get married, although neither one was really in love with the other. It was only about sex, although Mother admitted to me that sex with my dad never was all that great anyway.

This was actually Dad’s second marriage. His first brief marriage, to a woman named Helen, ended abruptly when Dad returned home from military service and walked in on Helen, in bed with another woman! It was only a few months after my brother was born that Mother found herself pregnant again, with me this time. I think that originally everybody expected me to turn out to be more like my father. I looked more like him, and Junior looked more like our mother, but it soon became obvious that I was more like our mother, in personality and temperament, and Junior was more like our dad. My parents were married for only about four years and divorced when I was three. I suppose that may be why I never suffered the trauma of parental divorce that a lot of older children go through. It happened before I was old enough to know him as a live-in father.

During the ensuing years, Mother had several lovers (one at a time), including a decades-long love affair with a married man, a dentist. This union eventually produced a daughter, my half-sister, Debra Jean. I was ten when she came along. Despite the circumstances of her birth, I am so grateful that Mother allowed her to be born. Debbie is one of my best friends. Deb’s dad was my mother’s one true love. He was very good to her, and although he never divorced his wife (he already had four other children with her), he and my mom remained close up until he died.

Mother eventually did marry a second time herself to Lee D. McNeill (or “Mack“), a common laborer. That unfortunate union lasted for ten years. My stepfather and I never really got along. We tolerated each other for a while, but it got worse as time went on. I think he resented my smarts and my close relationship with my mother. I have learned since that he was abusive to her, too (physically and emotionally), while they were married, which increased my dislike of him even further.

Jenny had her last child, Aaron McNeill, when she was 46-years-old and I was 23. He certainly was unplanned and unexpected. When Mama didn’t get her period for three months, she assumed that she was menopausal. No such luck. Preggers again! She would had been lying if she said that she wanted another baby at age 46. I wasn’t around to watch Aaron grow up, since he was only two when I moved to NYC, but we’ve always been close as brothers. I won’t give you the rundown of my siblings and other family members at this time. This piece is about my mother.

By the late ‘90s the neighborhood, where we kids grew up as well, became rather rundown and unsafe, so Mother moved into a seniors-occupied apartment complex in another part of town. This was the first and only time that she lived alone. Before then she was always with her parents, children or husband. She loved having her own place while it lasted. But then she got too sick to care for herself and had to be confined to the hospital, where she lived out her remaining few years.

Jeannette was a dear, sweet woman who was kind, always cheerful, honest, out-spoken, friendly and cordial and well-liked by everyone. She didn’t know any strangers. When she visited me in NYC, she’d be talking to people on the street and in restaurants like she’s known them forever. I would tell her, “Mama, you don’t know those people. Why are you telling them all your business…and mine!?” But that’s how she was. She just liked people.

In her younger years, Mama worked at various jobs, including elevator operator, busgirl at a restaurant and housemaid. When she dropped out of high school at the end of her junior year, her only option, in lieu of marriage, was to go to work. She worked at Bike-Webb, a factory that made elastic garments and as a seamstress at Wilson Brothers clothing factory for several years. She next was a school crossing-guard for 20 years, until she retired for good in 1981. She also moonlighted as an undertaker’s assistant, but only as a sort of hostess and guide; she didn’t have to deal with corpse preparation. She attended the wakes and funerals, greeting and comforting the loved ones of the “dearly departed,” rendered a vocal solo when it was requested, and even drove the hearse occasionally.

Although Mother was an accomplished and talented singer in her own right, she never pursued a professional career with her singing. So she lived vicariously through my musical endeavors. When she was still a teenager, however, a man who was passing through town with a traveling dance band heard Mama singing one day and offered her a job with his band. Of course, her parents would not let her go with them. She was too young, and they weren’t going to relinquish their child to a bunch of errant strangers. I suppose I shouldn’t regret that she did not run off with that band so many years ago, for if she had, her life would have taken another path, she most likely would have not met my father, and I would never have been born. So you see, everything happens for a reason.

Mama did sing in her church choir for most of her life (and I along with her and my grandfather as well, until I left home), did solo work and even occasional recitals. For a while she directed our church’s youth choir, and of which I was also a member. As a young woman, Mother was a regular member of the H.T. Burleigh Company, a local theatrical troupe that produced musicals and even operas. When I was only twelve, I appeared in my first Carmen with the Company, as part of the children soldiers’ chorus in Act One.

I had a special relationship with my mother. She was my pal, my buddy, my best female friend. In fact, she called me “Buddy.” That’s been my family nickname all my life. One of my earliest memories was that I was a “Mama’s boy,” and I remember following her around the house like a shadow. It’s a wonder that I became so independent as I am now. But knowing that I would be on my own someday, I learned how to fend for myself. I can cook, iron, sew and do my own laundry. Even when I left home temporarily and then for good, my mother and I regularly corresponded with cards, letters and phone calls. We wrote each other when I was stationed in Okinawa for 18 months. Even while on my cruises with the New York Vagabonds, I would call her when I got the chance. No matter where I happened to be in the world, we always kept in touch. That is what I miss the most–our phone conversations. Hearing my voice always made her day. And I always had to end the calls; she would keep me on the phone all day if I let her. But then, she said the same about me.

Some of our common interests were our love of records, movies, music and singing. Mama must have instilled those aspects and talent in me as well. She told me that she sang the whole time that she was pregnant with me. I always acknowledged Mother’s Day and her Christmas birthday (Dec. 23) with a gift and a card. Typical gifts were cash (she could always use that!), recordings (my own, especially) or inexpensive jewelry items. She loved cheap jewelry, like earrings and brooches and such. She was not a flower person. I’m not either. What purpose do they serve? She preferred things which have a practical or useful function, as do I.

When Mother turned 80, in December 2004, to celebrate this milestone, the family decided to throw her a surprise birthday party at my sister’s house the day after Christmas. She had been hinting around for the whole year that she wanted a party. She appeared to be genuinely surprised. But the bigger surprise was my being there. I didn’t tell her that I was coming. Mama knew that I am always busy at Christmastime every year with singing gigs. In fact, I had not been back in South Bend at Christmas in 20 years! That was when she turned 60. So she did not expect to see me at all. She was quite taken aback but delighted to no end when I came out of hiding and walked into the room where everybody was.

I had the foresight to throw Mother another surprise 90th birthday party the summer before she died, when I was in South Bend for a family reunion (my father’s family). As it turned out, it was good that we did it then, because she never made it to 91. It was the last time that she got to see me, as well as some family members and mutual friends. Besides the four of us, there are six grandchildren and eleven(?) great-grandchildren.

Mother was so proud of me and all my achievements, musical and otherwise, and she was my biggest fan. Over the years and whenever possible, my mom would come to where I was to see me perform. She came down to Bloomington while I was at I.U. to see me act in a play (Jean Genet’s The Blacks). She saw some DeCormier shows, the Flirtations several times and even traveled to Toronto to see me when I was on the Canadian tour with Harry Belafonte. She was there for my stage debut in 1952, and ultimately, I performed for her after her death as well, when I delivered the eulogy at her funeral and rendered a dedicatory solo, standing directly over her coffin while I sang.

Now let me tell you what kind of mother she was. Jenny managed to raise four children, practically all by herself. Well, she did have help, because we lived in our grandparents’ house.
Considering how well we all turned out, I think she did a pretty fantastic job in raising us. None of us were ever in a gang growing up, in trouble all the time or hooked on drugs or in prison. Mother herself did not ever have a criminal record.

We were all really good-mannered, well-behaved kids, and I think Mama had a lot to do with that. I instinctively say “please,” “thank you” and “excuse me” without even having to think about it, because that is what we were taught. Our mother was never abusive to any of us, physically or emotionally. She never raised her voice to us in anger, not that we ever gave her any reason to, and we never disrespected her either. I am appalled at how some children talk to their parents, calling them ugly names and saying that they hate them. That sort of behavior was absolutely unheard of in our household. We all had mutual respect for one another.

Mother neither smoked nor drank. There was never any alcohol in the house anyway. We never had much money growing up, so none of us were spoiled or demanded things that we knew our mother could not afford. As a result, I still am frugal, non-extravagant and tend not to spend money unnecessarily. We didn’t know just how poor we were because we were always well-fed, clothed and had a roof over our heads. Mama woke us up every morning for school and made us breakfast. We never started our day hungry. Our mom showed us all unconditional love and was always accepting and supportive of anything that we wanted to do with our lives. We could talk to each other about anything. She would give advice if we asked for it, but she never was judgmental. Her life was not perfect by any means, so she chose not to criticize and reprimand us when we made mistakes.

You know how some parents are disapproving of their kids’ friends and acquaintances. Our mother was accepting and respectful to all of our friends. A couple of my own homies, for example, were, shall I say, a bit obvious, gayly-speaking, but Mother never talked about them disparagingly or criticized their unmasculine demeanor. I guess she realized that if I liked these boys, it was not her place to suggest that I should not be friends with them. In fact, she liked them, too. All my friends were good kids like myself. She had no reason to object to any of them. Besides, some of her boyfriends over the years were not all that great, so she knew better not to belittle any of mine. I must have gotten my lack of hypocrisy attitude from her, too.

I can’t ever accuse my mother of being neglectful or remiss in her duties as a parent. She was always there when we needed her. We never once had an outside babysitter. When she was at work, our grandmother watched us, and the rest of the time, Mama would be at home taking care of us herself. She was quite the homebody, not one to be out in the street every night doing who-knows-what, and I must have gotten that from her, too. Even now, I go out only when I need to.

Mama knew all of her kids, because she spent a lot of quality time with us. She read to us when we were little–in fact, she taught me how to read before I started kindergarten–she took us to the movies often, the indoor theaters as well as the outdoor drive-ins, we watched TV together, she played cards and board games with me and my brother and our friends, she attended my brother’s Little League baseball games, and we even played miniature golf and went bowling a few times. We kept up with and taught Mother all of the dances that came along in the ’50s and ’60s; there was a new one practically every week. Since we didn’t drive yet, she was our personal chauffeur until we left home to attend college. Mother knew her way around a sewing machine and used to make some of her own clothes. She taught me how to embroider, and I introduced her to Paint-By-Number.

I have learned over the years that some children of divorced parents don’t always have it so good, and it often affects their lives in very negative ways. The parents part as bitter enemies and tend to use their children as go-betweens. In addition, each one talks despicably about the other to the kids, expecting them to take sides. That was not our case at all. Our parents parted mutually on friendly terms and remained so for the rest of their lives. My mother never badmouthed our dad in our presence (neither did our grandparents) and never kept him from spending time with us. She confided to me later why they split up, but it was the truth and she wasn’t resentful about it. It worked out in all of our favors besides. If they had stayed together “for the sake of the children,” we all would have been miserable.

Dad married the woman that he left my mother for, and she appreciated Emma for taking my dad off her hands. My dad was a gambler and a womanizer. “Let her deal with him now,” Mama would say. Apparently, Dad and Emma were more suited to each other, since they were together for 44 years, until his death by heart failure brought on by a car collision with a drunken driver in August 1994. Another unusual situation was that my mom and stepmother were friends. Emma loved me and my brother as well. As she was unable to have children of her own, she considered Junior and me her surrogate sons.

My mother and I were alike in many ways, with similar personalities, intelligence, wit and a great sense of humor. We made each other laugh often. We had private references between us that we didn’t have to explain. She just got me. My mother absolutely adored me. But how could she not? I am so adorable! She is greatly missed.

Jeannette in her youth
Me and Mommie Dearest